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Making the most of class reunions

By Louisa Kamps, MarthaStewart.com
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Tue October 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A onetime loner believes in the therapeutic power of class reunions
  • Reunions allow you to revisit chapters of life, she says
  • People share confidences at reunions they might not otherwise

(CNN) -- Throughout my 20s, I said "Thanks, but nooo thanks," to school reunions. Thinking myself a forward-leaner barreling toward the next big thing (a lusty new life as an aspiring woman of letters in New York City), I had zero interest in revisiting my high school or college days.

My reunion aversion wasn't about how I looked, how successful I was or some other fear of appearances. I just had no reason to feel nostalgic. As a student, I'd never found a solid perch in school's social aviary. While I always had a grab bag of close friends, with most of my classmates I often struggled to hold myself just so, to do or say the exact right thing. Among a circle of superachievers at my Wisconsin high school, I could break a sweat attempting the perfect wisecrack. With a posse of beautiful tortured artistes in college at Brown, I wondered, squinting through clouds of American Spirit smoke, if my expression was properly pained, my eyeliner adequately runny.

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But as I inched forward in my chosen profession post-college and started settling into my own skin, I no longer felt such a compulsion to break with my past. And I started to become curious about my former classmates: What ever happened to all the brains and beauties ... and jocks and preps and stoners? Who were they growing up to be?

Hoping to find out, I headed to Providence, Rhode Island, for my 10th college reunion with my good friend and classmate Nina. It was 1999, the height of the dot-com hubbub. At the opening-night picnic, I was chatting with Nina and a few mutual acquaintances (some married; others, like Nina and me, still single) when word came that one of our classmates had to cancel last minute because she was finalizing a deal to sell her booming Internet advertising startup for, rumor had it, several million dollars. Our jabbering circle fell silent. We took longs swigs of our beers and frowned at our cut-offs and flip-flops. But when we looked up a moment later, we all just laughed -- deliciously, cathartically -- because we knew we'd been thinking the same thing: Where were our million-dollar paydays?

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Right then I realized the consoling value of reconnecting with others who, by virtue of having passed through the same institutions with you and having been shaped by similar forces, share a good deal of your social-historical DNA. These are the people who understand better than anyone how you might have expected life to unfold and what a punch it is, therefore, when expectations and plans inevitably change. I've since become a true believer in reunions -- having attended every 5- and 10-year gathering at both of my alma maters since my first trip back to Brown.

As a married, working mother of 44 with two young boys, the time generously built into a reunion's weekend-long schedule -- the freedom to roam the school grounds and talk (and talk and talk) -- seems an almost insane luxury. At my 20th at Brown two years ago, a good friend and I flopped on our bellies on the lawn outside our former dorm, splitting blades of grass with our thumbnails while we nattered for the better part of an afternoon, just as we had during college. She confessed that she and her husband had come close to splitting up, decided not to and were still tentatively working to repair their relationship. I was glad to be there with her face-to-face, bouncing around ideas about how they might get back on track. When we finally peeled ourselves off the lawn at dusk to get ready for the campus dance, she was feeling better, laughing her great old husky laugh over some funny memory we'd moved on to.

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It was easily one of the most gratifying conversations I'd had in ages, and it wouldn't have happened anywhere else. Reunions encourage people to go deep and wide, sharing feelings and confidences they might not otherwise. From other former classmates, I've heard stories of recent divorce, gastric bypass, and coming out to conservative family members after years in the closet that sent shivers up and down my arms. At my 25th high school reunion, I stood so close to a former classmate -- a guy I spent every day with from kindergarten through 12th grade -- that I could smell his hair, which bore the same distinct perfume as it did when I would line up behind him for lunch. I listened to him tell me, tearfully, about losing both his parents in the past five years. Having known them, I got choked up, too.

Often what's most moving about my former classmates' news is their simple desire and willingness to share it. At every reunion I've been to, I've found myself with a group of women, organically unpacking the big and small life concerns that keep us up at night. Gathered around the bar at that same high school reunion last fall, a group of my female classmates and I were hotly debating which tinted moisturizers and concealers were the best, when -- bless her -- my ever-makeup-free friend Amy came over, discovered what we were up to, and shouted, "Enough!" At my college 20th, several women friends and I talked about the tremendous stresses in our lives -- the juggling act of work and family and how, coming up after the feminist revolution and being told we could "have it all," we never anticipated just how much those kids and careers would kick our asses. Recalling the triumphal spirit in which our teachers told us the world was ours to master, we laughed, shook our heads, and poured more wine.

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After a reunion, I always return home feeling better, as if deep memory kinks -- mistaken impressions, long-held grudges against myself and others -- have been worked out, and I'm heading somewhere brighter. The real magic of these occasions, it seems, is that they allow us to revisit certain chapters of our lives, see whether our memories are accurate or need some revision, then come back to the present with a take-home message about ourselves and our progress. Spending time with former classmates has helped me understand that rather than being an outcast at my high school and then a hopelessly out-of-place nervous Nellie at Brown -- a posher environment than I was used to -- maybe I was just migrating between social scenes, finding my way. As was everyone else. Reunions have helped me see myself as a more fluid, flexible, forgiving (and forgiven) person than I ever thought myself to be.

Clearly, there are ancient slights that some will never let go of. A friend of mine whose college boyfriend was swiped by another friend when we were all in school has yet to patch things up with the boyfriend thief -- and I noticed them giving each other wide berth at our last reunion. But mostly a vibe of solidarity underpins these events. I've felt it -- incredibly comforting and earthy and real -- wash over me while sitting under a tent in a soft rain at Brown and in the dugout of my high school's baseball field shooting the breeze with a few old friends. I was, at times like those, so engrossed in conversation -- talking kids, work, great trips, good sex, books to read, cars not to buy under any circumstance, weird memories of each other, and so many other things -- that I felt we were all breathing together as a single entity. These are the kinds of status updates you won't find on Facebook. I felt whole: fully myself and fully supported -- entirely not alone.

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I don't want my time on Earth to fly forward. I'm pretty pumped, though, to keep growing older, moving into the future, marking the passage of years with these important people from my past.

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